Talky Tuesday: Y iz speling inglish so hard?

I’ve often joked that I’m glad I happened to be born in a country where English is my first language, because if it weren’t, the spelling alone would have forever kept me from even trying to learn it as a second.

I mean, it makes no sense. On the other hand, a lot of (but not all) other languages have spelling conventions that do make sense. Even Irish Gaelic, which I tried to learn but gave up on because I could just not pronounce it, allegedly has very strict spelling rules.

To be fair, though — English is all over the map. Exhibit 1:

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/DU9w9qLynwE

How did we wind up with this messy orthography? It mainly happened because two dudes, one in England and one the the U.S., decided to write the definitive English dictionary, but followed different rules. But it also has to do with the convoluted descent of the language itself.

Let’s take a quick trip through time — but it’s going to start about five hundred years before what you were probably (or possibly not) taught in high school.

This would be Caedmon’s Hymn, a fragment from sometime in the 7th century C.E., which would mean over 1400 years ago. Here’s the opening line: “Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard…”

Any idea what that means? Well, probably not. The translation is, “Now must we praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian…”

Perhaps the only word that jumps out as even close to anything in modern English is “Weard,” but only if you realize that English at this time capitalized nouns, and “Weard” is very close to “Ward,” who is legally not the guardian but the guarded. Think Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne’s young “ward.”

“Nu” might kind of hint at “now,” but with a very warped vowel-sound.

Let’s check out the language about four hundred years later.

Here’s the first line of Beowulf, written in the early 11th century CE, in the original: “Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon…” This translates to “How we have heard of the might of the kings.” You probably recognize exactly one word in that sentence: The first person plural pronoun “We.”

Maybe, if you look closer, you might realize that “þeodcyninga” has the word “king” hiding in it, and is probably the possessive form of the noun built on the stem “cyning,” which would have been pronounced with a hard “C” at the beginning.

This is Old English, but it might as well be a foreign language, right? Let’s take another little jump forward:

“siþen þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at troye…” This is the opening line of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written around 1100 CE in a dialect of Middle English, and it’s probably a little easier to understand. In modern English, it reads, “After the siege and the assault of Troy…”

The funny looking letters that appear to be lowercase p’s in which the round part slipped down is actually the equivalent of the letters “th,” so you could interpret it as “sithen the sege,” and that second word reveals the reason for the biggest misunderstanding modern English speakers have about Middle English.

If you’ve ever seen something like “Ye Olde Shoppe,” that’s where this comes from. Instead of replacing the “þ” with “th,” early typesetters (who didn’t have the character) used a “y” instead, because to them it looked similar, and hence a non-existent word was born.

But back to the point, if you read that line out loud slowly, you can pretty much hear the modern English meaning in it. But look at how much the language had changed in just a century. Why? Simple. Beowulf and The Green Knight lived on opposite sides of the Norman Conquest.

This had a huge impact on the English language, infusing it with French. It’s a big part of the reason why we raise cows, pigs, and chickens, but eat beef, pork, and poultry. The farmers and cooks were lower-classes, so spoke English. The people who ate it were upper-class and rich, so spoke the courtly language, which was French.

Let’s jump ahead to 1392 and The Canterbury Tales, written in a later version of Middle English. I’ll bet that you can understand this one perfectly well: “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…”

It’s basically giving us the setting — in April, when the rains of that month end the drought in March that affected plants right down to their roots.

Set the time machine for 1469, and Thomas Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur, and look at this opening line: “HIt befel in the dayes of Vther pendragon when he was kynge of all Englond and so regned…”

I don’t even need to translate that, do I? Except maybe to point out that “Vther pendragon” is better know as “Uther Pendragon,” father of King Arthur.

One last jump of 140 years, and we get this line, for which I don’t even need to cite the author or source: “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

And so was modern English born.

Think about that one for a moment. If you were to jump into a time machine, you could only really safely go back a touch over 400 years, or maybe 550, and still be able to communicate with other English speakers — and that’s not even accounting for The Great Vowel Shift.

But spelling was not standardized in Shakespeare’s day. Here’s an example from Twelfth Night, aka Twelfe Night, or What You Will.

And if you want a really funny take on the language of the era by a very famous American author, check out Mark Twain’s hilarious short story 1601, which is naught more but an extended fart joke at Queen Elizabeth (I)’s expense.

Shakespeare would have loved it.

But after Shakespeare died in 1616, it was less than a century and a half before Samuel Johnson felt compelled to compile a dictionary of the English language. His initial attempt was to “fix” the language, but he soon admitted that this was folly.

Unfortunately, he didn’t really fix much, and it’s thanks to him that we have such weird (British) spellings as programme instead of program, tonne instead of ton, and all of those words with “ou” instead of just “o,” like “colour,” because he had this weird boner for maintaining the spellings of words from non-English sources, like French and Latin.

Meanwhile, Noah Webster was born three years after Johnson’s dictionary came out in 1755, and the United States as an independent nation were born by the time he was in his early 30s. He started working on his own dictionary with a goal toward simplifying spelling, and it came out in 1828 after a preliminary run at it in 1806.

Of course, Noah learned 26 languages in order to properly classify English words, and his dictionary was considered by many to outclass Johnson’s in every regard.

But this meant that there were still two English dictionaries with quite different spellings, and with authors who didn’t really simplify anything.

Sure, Webster gave us the short forms of program and ton, and the less nonsensical versions of “tyre” (tire), “kerb” (curb) and “gaol” (jail), but that was about it. He could have quashed such nonsense like the letter “C” (totally redundant as long as we have K and S around); really simplified vowel sounds by standardizing them as single letters and creating strong and defined diphthongs and, finally, getting rid of those stupid silent vowels, mostly “E”, that like to creep at the end of words after a consonant and change the pronunciation of the internal vowel.

So, again, come on. “Maik” is a much more sensible spelling than “make,” which would be two syllables in most other languages.

Speaking of “syllables,” what’s with those double letters? In Spanish, two L’s together makes sense because they are pronounced differently — “Lavas,” meaning you wash, is pronounced just like that: “lavas.” But “llaves,” meaning keys, is pronounced “ya-vays.”

Well, unless you’re from Argentina, in which case it becomes “sha-vays,” but the less said about that the better.

But it gets really weird because American English prefers things like “traveler,” while British English insists on “traveller.” Or what about “judgment” vs. “judgement?” (Hint: Sorry, Brits. You’re wrong. It does not need that second “e”. Webster was right.)

Ben Franklin had tried to simplify spelling before Webster, proposing a new alphabet, but that never caught on. Then again, some of the Founders actually proposed making the official language of the new nation Hebrew instead of English.

Or maybe they were actually going to go for German. Who knows?

In any case… English is the bastard child of Anglo-Saxon, Danish, French, Latin, German, Celtic, and (in latter days) borrowings from every country and culture we’ve managed to touch. As such, our spelling is a total hodgepodge and a hot mess, and it’s probably never going to get fixed.

On the other hand, a couple hundred years from now, everyone may speak Emoji, which would be a weird full circle back around from Egyptian hieroglyphics, where everyone knows what the little pictures mean even if they pronounce them in their own language.

Honestly, I’m not sure whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing.

The Saturday Morning Post #69: Pamela Rewarded Part 4

CONCLUSION. Previously: Pamela is an Emmy award-winning TV producer without a show, and she’s been desperately trying to get back in the game, but so far has only faced rejection, because everything she pitches is too much like her old show. Meanwhile, she’s also dealing with her recalcitrant children — son Walter, who took a dive out of his bedroom and seriously broke his arm because of her controlling nature, and daughter Althea, who despite having her every whim indulged seems bitter and resentful. Pamela has arranged for the social event of the season to mark Althea’s 18th birthday, but none of the invitees have replied. Instead, she’s hired 350 extras for the evening, hoping that Althea won’t know. Here’s the last installment.

The extras arrived in dribs and drabs on cue, and by seven-forty-five the party looked like a gigantic success. Althea still wasn’t down yet, but that wasn’t unusual. Strangers made her nervous, and she’d have to be coaxed. Pamela had allowed her to invite a friend, but the friend hadn’t shown up yet. When she did, whoever it was, Althea would loosen up.

Walter was another matter. He attacked the bar the second it opened up, even though Pamela had told him not to drink tonight. He was already weaving pretty well when he stumbled up to her as she stood by the stairs, waiting for the guest of honor to descend.

“No more for you tonight,” she said sternly, taking the glass out of his uninjured hand. “You’re barely 19 anyway. And I don’t want you ruining this evening for your sister.”

“You don’t want me ruining it for you.”

“Walter, what is wrong with you? You used to be such a good boy, but now look. Acting like a cheap drunk, falling down and hurting yourself. What happened? Is this what a year in the dorms has done to you?”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going back there.”

“I know, we’ve already settled that. And I think it’s a good thing.”

“No. I mean, I’m not going back there. My first semester, I applied to NYU — “

“But you got accepted to S.C. — “

“No, no. I mean, while I was a freshman and they accepted me. I’m transferring.”

Pamela stared at him, then sipped from the glass in her hand. “You want to run that by me again?” she said.

“I am going to NYU in September. I’m moving to New York next week.”

Pamela laughed. “No you’re not.”

“I’m an adult and you’re not telling me what to do. It’s bad enough I went to a college I didin’t want to. Don’t make it worse.”

“How have I made it worse?”

“Let me live my life.”

“How have I made it worse, Walter? Look around you, look at all this. This house. Your car, expensive clothes. Have you ever not had anything you wanted, and you have the nerve to stand there and tell me that I’ve made your life worse?”

His lip trembled and he bit it, staring at her with barely concealed fury. “I am going to NYU,” he finally spat out, low, his voice cracking.

“Then you’re paying for NYU,” Pamela shot back, “Because I’m not. I’m only paying for USC.”

“Only paying. That’s the problem, that’s the goddamn problem.”

“Watch your language.”

“I’m going.” He pushed past her and started up the stairs. “And fuck you.”

She dropped the glass, screamed for the maid to clean the carpet, then headed up the stairs, going to Althea’s door and knocking as she tried the knob. Locked. She had to find out who kept putting the locks back on after she’d have Oded remove them.

“Sweetie, are you coming down soon?”

“Just a minute.”

“Everybody’s here, they can’t wait to see you.”

“I said just a minute.”

“And you have to open your presents. There are lots of presents.”

Silence, then she heard movement inside, voices. Strange, Althea was supposed to be alone. Then she opened the door, already in her party dress and Pamela saw the boy, standing over by the vanity.

“Mom, Dale. Dale, mom.” Althea noticed Pamela’s horrified reaction, added, “You said I could bring a friend.”

“I meant girlfriend.”

“So I brought my boyfriend. Excuse me.” Althea stepped past Pamela, toward the stairs.

“Wait, wait. What do you mean ‘boyfriend?’” Pamela asked. “You don’t have a boyfriend.”

“Yes I do, his name’s Dale, that’s him.” Dale had emerged from the bedroom and Althea took his hand, pulling him toward the stairs. When the hell did she even meet someone to become a boyfriend, Pamela wondered. And where could Althea have met him? she didn’t know any black people. She didn’t know any people.

But before Pamela could say a word, Althea smiled at her and said the one thing that could possibly shut her up at this moment. “Don’t make a scene in front of the guests,” Althea whispered, and then she and Dale were bouncing down the stairs, holding hands.

Pamela grabbed the banister to keep from swaying. Oded came out of his room, saw her and bounded over.

“Great party, huh?”

“Fasten your seatbelts,” Pamela said. Then, “Oh, never mind.”

* * *
“Surprise!” the extras yelled, hitting their cue and getting their line right as Althea made her entrance.

Pamela had done her best to distract her daughter downstairs, latching onto her and taking her around to meet the guests, but the poor girl looked incredibly bored and didn’t say much of anything to anyone. Finally, she shoved Pamela’s arm off her shoulder. “You’re crushing me,” she said, moving three feet away and signaling for Dale to join them.

“Should we open your presents now?” Pamela cheered.

“Isn’t there a band or something?” Althea asked.

“Band first, then presents?”

“Okay.”

And the show went on and Althea stood by her mother’s side during the first song, then whispered in her ear, “I’m going to dance with Dale,” and wandered away. Pamela nodded, keeping an eye on them. Althea stopped briefly to talk to Oded, and then she and Dale faded into the crowd and onto the dance floor. She turned to watch the group play and then Oded popped up with a drink, standing at her side.

“They’re pretty good, huh?” he said.

“Not really,” Pamela told him, “They only charge like they are.” And it was true. The second song sounded just like the first, which sounded identical to the third, all of them variations on the theme of “Ooh, do you love me, girl? I love you.” It was all so hormonally puerile, except that these five boys all looked like virgins, and one of them was obviously queer — not that he’d know it for another decade.

It was over soon enough and then it was time for the presents, except that Althea was AWOL. Pamela and Oded looked everywhere for her, but she was nowhere. Pamela stomped up the stairs, beelined to Althea’s door and knocked as she grabbed the knob. It wasn’t locked. She flung the door open, finding the room empty.

Finding the room almost empty. There was an envelope on the floor, addressed simply, “Mom.”

She read the letter three times, stunned. The short version was, “I’m leaving. You suck.” The long version was three handwritten pages, every sin Althea thought Pamela had ever committed, every normal thing she hadn’t let her have. She shoved the note in her pocket, went downstairs and grabbed the microphone.

“Okay, thanks, party’s over. Everybody, out, out. Go. Home.”

And the extras scattered like ants, Pamela’s one-hundred-dollar guests, boy band long gone and unopened presents stacked on tables. The yard was devoid of partiers in five minutes, Pamela standing on the stage, alone as the caterers began to clean up.

She didn’t remember starting to do it, but certainly enjoyed it when she found herself in the middle of flinging boxes to the ground, kicking in fancy wrapping paper, hurling expensive foreign electronics into the pool, heaving fragile items hard into the flagstones, half-screaming all the while.

She’d trashed everything and overturned all the tables and had turned toward the car, which was concealed under a huge drape on the back lawn, when Oded raced up to her, grabbed her arm.

“Pam, stop it. This isn’t helping. She’ll be back.”

“No she won’t,” Pamela sputtered, pulling out the letter and shoving it in Oded’s arms. He took it but didn’t look at it. He was staring at her.

And then Pamela knew. Oded and Althea had been talking at the party. And Oded hadn’t seemed particularly surprised to meet Dale. Oded knew, he knew everything, he was in on everything. Just another one in a long line of people to betray her and plot against her, and it all made sense now. That was why Walter did what he did, why Althea had run away.

She raked her nails across his face, drawing four long red gashes down his left cheek. He jumped away. “Ow. What the hell did you do that for — ”:

“Get out.”

“What?”

“This is all your fault.”

What?”

“You know what I’m talking about. You hate me, you always have. Well, I’m done with you. Good-bye.”

She turned her back on him.

“Come on, Pamela. We’ll find Althea, we’ll bring her back.”

“You have fifteen minutes, and then I’m calling the police.”

There was a long silence, then Oded finally spoke. “All right. Okay, I’m gone. But you know what? You are one severely fucked up lady. And you can just kiss…” He balled up his face in rage, then shook his head, turned his back and walked away.

But Pamela wasn’t looking and she didn’t acknowledge him at all, and finally she heard him stomp across the patio, into the house. It was Dennis all over again, in its own way.

She went inside later, making sure Oded was gone, then poured herself a drink and stood in the living room, just staring at the Emmy. It was a beautiful statue, really. Majestic and hopeful. A Grammy was stupid, a Tony was way too small and an Oscar was too plain. But this one was perfection. It was all she’d ever really wanted.

She thought she heard a strange buzzing sound from somewhere, cocked her head to listen, but then it stopped. Maybe she’d had too much to drink. But then something hit her nose and she sniffed. Smoke? Was somebody smoking in the house? Great, she thought, Oded is back.

She went into the foyer, but there was no one there. The front door was locked. But she could still smell the smoke…

And then the buzzing again, and she knew what it was. One of the smoke detectors, the one at the top of the stairs. She looked up, and saw the smoke billowing down the hallway, gathering in a slow-forming pool at the top of the stairwell. She raced up the stairs, looked into the hall, which was already obscured. There was a flicker of flame from the distance, heat drifting toward her.

And there was Walter, emerging from one of the bedrooms, coughing. He stumbled toward the stairs, stopped and looked down at her, still holding the burnt-out match in his hand.

“Walter…” was all she could say.

“You’re going to pay for it,” he answered. And then the door to Pamela’s room swung open on a gust of flame and huge ball of black smoke coughed into the hall, drifting around Walter, above Pamela. She reached forward, grabbed for him and got hold of his bad arm, pulling him toward the stairs.

“Out,” she said. “Get outside. Now.”

But he sat down, refusing to move.

“Walter, don’t do this.”

“Which one do you really care about more?” he asked.

“Which, who?”

“Which thing, mommy. Me or the house?”

“I care about you, Walter. Now get out of here.”

“Don’t you think you should be calling 9-1-1?”

“Get your ass downstairs right now.”

She could hear the crackling flames, roaring into the hall, the smoke getting thicker, every alarm upstairs going off. She didn’t have to call 9-1-1 and Walter knew that. The security company had already been notified.

“Who’s paying for NYU?” Walter asked, waving smoke away, his eyes watering.

“We’ll talk about it later,” Pamela said, grabbing the front of his shirt, trying to pull him up.

“We’ll talk about it now,” he replied.

“You can go to NYU if you get out of this house right now.”

“Swear?”

“Yes, I swear, goddammit, now move.”

With a smug grin, Walter got up and hurried down the stairs, Pamela following. He was at the door when she suddenly remembered, turned back toward the living room.

“Leave it,” he said.

“No,” she answered.

“Okay,” he replied, walking back to the bottom of the stairs. “You can take it or me out, not both.”

“Stop screwing around.”

“I’m not screwing around. Which one is more important to you, me or that lump of brass? It’s D-Day, mommy. Or maybe that should be V-Day. You know. Victory. Yours or mine, but not both.”

There was a sudden creaking from the back of the house, then a crash. Pamela could see the flicker of flames through the dining room doors, and then the smoke started pouring in. Something in the kitchen had gone up fast, and then flames exploded through the dining room, licking at the living room doors, flanking the display case.

In the far distance, sirens trembled, approaching and receding slowly, up the canyon roads.

The flames were advancing, crawling around the walls now, crawling toward it. They were reflected in the polished gold, highlighting it, making it shine.

Pamela stepped into the living room, started toward the statue, but then the flames roared up, cutting her off. There was nothing she could do but watch as the walls blackened and the fire crawled ever closer to the winged lady.

She backed out of the room, heading for the front door. Walter wasn’t sitting on the stairs. Maybe he’d finally done something sensible.

She opened the front door and the flames in the house roared up, jumping at her. She ran, down the drive, hearing now the terrible crackling of shattering wood and the wail of the sirens finally arriving on the other side of the front wall. Walter wasn’t there. But he had to have gotten out. He had to.

She turned and looked at the house, which was belching hot yellow and black smoke from its entire upper floor, downstairs windows glimmering. From where she stood, she could see through the front window, through the living room doors, could just catch a glimpse of the edge of the statue, flames now dancing at its base. And then the vision was gone, buried in the cataclysm and firemen were racing past her, two men in white uniforms taking her arms and leading her to a stretcher and an oxygen mask.

But they couldn’t save the house, nobody could, not even Pamela. Everything burned, even the garage, the Emmy reduced to a melted, blackened thing and Walter… Walter gone.

And Althea and Oded. She had worked so hard to make everything exactly perfect, and it was all gone so easily and despite the oxygen, or because of it, she started hyperventilating and wound up in the hospital anyway. The baskets of flowers and the Things Executives Sent were lovely, but none of them came with job offers. They all wrote notes about how terribly tragic her loss was, and if she needed anything blah, blah, blah. But the blah blah blah meant nothing. None of it had meant anything. And six months later, somebody else produced her story, fictionalized, as a movie of the week.

It won four fucking Emmys.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #68: Pamela Rewarded Part 3

Previously: It’s May 2000, and Pamela is an Emmy-winning former show runner, just after the last season of that award-winning show. We learned a bit about her life and early career, then jump back to the present as her son, Walter, winds up in the hospital. Pamela’s first husband, Roger, is actually Walter’s son, but he doesn’t know it. To find out why, read Part 2.

“The doctor said it’s a spiral fracture, which I guess means it’s worse than a normal one. He’ll be in there a while,” Pamela explained as she and Oded stood outside the ER entrance, along with Roger and some bored-looking young blond boytoy, Pamela the only one not smoking. She wasn’t sure why she had called Roger. It just seemed like the proper thing to do when someone’s son fell off a second-story roof.

“But it’s just his arm?” Roger asked, and he was truly concerned.

“And his wrist,” Pamela said. “He’s going to have pins and everything in it. It’ll be a few months.”

“What was he doing up on the roof, anyway?” the boytoy injected with a vague drawl.

“Brian…” Roger hissed, and Pamela wondered how many Y’s were in the name.

“We don’t know,” Oded offered, Pamela giving him a stern look. “Well, we don’t,” he defended.

Well, she did, she thought, hoping no one else knew. She’d only been trying to talk to Walter, up in his room, the one he stayed in when he wasn’t in school, to convince him to live here the next semester instead of in the dorms on campus.

It had been hard enough steering him into USC in the first place. He’d wanted to go to NYU. But she’d convinced him that he’d make much better connections in the industry at a local school, and especially a prestigious film program, for which she could yank strings like nobody’s business, guaranteeing he’d get in.

She’d never expected him to move on campus. Yes, it wasn’t that far away, but it wasn’t in the greatest neighborhood, either. That was the approach she’d used, making a plea to his personal safety, but he didn’t seem worried at all. Then again, he was six-five and broad-shouldered. He never would have been a football player, but he probably didn’t have to worry about being mugged. That argument exhausted; she was trying to think of a second attack when Walter started crying.

“Honey, what is it, what’s wrong?”

He blubbered incoherently, couldn’t say anything for a long time. She sat there with him, arm around his shoulder, listening to the sniffles, muttering her own encouragements. He could tell her anything, she was his mother.

After about the third round of that, he suddenly bolted from the bed, tearing out of her arms, and he yelled, “Stop running my life!” She tried to approach him, to give him a reassuring hug, but he kept backing away, arm out to fend her off. He was babbling something about how she always made his decisions, always had to know what he was doing, was always intruding into everything, but she wasn’t really listening to that. She just wanted him to stop crying, and for everything to be okay. He finally backed into a corner and stood there, not looking at her, eyes red and angry.

“It’s okay,” she said, walking up to him, arms out.

“No it’s not, it all sucks,” he yelled at her, suddenly making a decision. He shoved past her, walked to the far end of the room and threw open the window.

“Walter — “

“This is your fault,” he announced, and then he lumbered out the window, onto the eave, somehow managing to fold himself through the small opening.

Pamela rushed to the window and got there just in time to see Walter vanishing in a swan-dive, heard the crash and thud below, and then a groan.

She was down the stairs in a second, flipping open her cell phone on the way, out the back door over to Walter, who had bounced off a redwood table, half into a flower bed. He was holding his right arm, mouth open to scream but sound not coming out. Pamela was already talking to 9-1-1 as she knelt next to Walter, gently touched his cheek.

“Mommy…” he whimpered.

“Sssssh,” she said.

And then the waiting, she and Oded and Roger and Brian, doing nothing for hours in the quiet place. If they asked, she’d tell the doctor he’d been cleaning the gutters or something. No, why would he be doing that after dark? Maybe he was chasing a chattering squirrel away.

But then a candystriper was escorting Walter out the double doors and Pamela got to him first, kissing his cheek, carefully avoiding his right arm, which was slinged and wrapped in plaster, metal bars protruding from the casing.

“Guess I’ll be living at the house next semester,” he said, indicating his arm and smiling. Then he saw Roger and reacted strangely. “Yo, Brian. Whazzup?”

It turned out that Roger’s boytoy went to school with Walter — or to put it another way, Pamela’s son was friends with Pamela’s gay ex-husband’s little blond whore.

Only in LA.

* * *
She’d been taking meetings but nothing was happening. It had been three months already since the last episode aired. Pitching stories left and right, but she’d inevitably hear through the grapevine that whatever suit she had played her heart out to had said, “No, it’s too much like Father’s Daughters. Different lyrics, same tune.”

And Walter had been quiet and surly lately, avoiding her. At least he hadn’t tried to do anything stupid and self-destructive, not since that dive off the roof. Anyway, he’d be living at with her in September. That was one big headache out of the way. Being on campus all the time, away from… Well, there were just so many bad influences out there.

But, she had more important things to worry about right now. It was almost Althea’s eighteenth birthday, and Pamela was throwing her a big party. The girl had seemed so depressed and withdrawn lately, which was a mystery. Althea had had everything she’d ever wanted, and her mother indulged her every whim. Why wasn’t she happy?

Well, the party would fix that. There’d be a tent in the yard, clowns and magicians, maybe she’d rent horses. She’d find some boyband to hire for the evening, invite everyone she knew, and the highlight of the evening would be the last of many gifts bestowed, a new car, she hadn’t decided exactly what yet, but it would be black, Pamela’s favorite color.

The preparations kept her distracted, so she almost didn’t notice that the RSVPs weren’t coming back. A week before the party, and only three of the five hundred invitees had responded, although two of those were “No.” That was unusual. She should have at least heard something. She made some phone calls, left mostly messages, got vague excuses from other associates. “Oh. You know, Pam, we’re not sure yet if we can make it. That’s a busy weekend…”

“Oh, bullshit,” she thought after a few of those. This was the height of production, the slowest part of the social calendar, and anyway, people in these positions could arrange to not be working, if they really wanted to do something.

But that was impossible. Everybody knew how important Althea was to her. What a big occasion this was. Was somebody else having a big party that they hadn’t invited her to? No, that couldn’t be it, because the two-party arrangement was standard practice in Hollywood. Always mention the other party, whether it exists or not, so there’s an excuse to leave if the first party sucks.

By three days before the party, she was frantic. Only she, Steph, Walter and Oded were on the guest list. Even the old man hadn’t replied, and Narita just kept taking messages when Pamela called, giving no reasons for his lack of response.

There was only one thing left to do, so she called an old friend in extras casting. Althea would never know the difference and her party would be a success. The “friend” insisted he couldn’t offer any discount, but Pamela still booked three hundred and fifty extras at a hundred bucks a head. The specifications were “studio executive and young mogul types, and their significant others.”

Dammit, now she’d have to have nametags. Well, Oded could do that and make himself useful for something. He’d tried to poke his nose into the planning and arrangement, but Pamela shooed him off. He knew nothing about that sort of thing.

It’s funny, he’d been her accountant originally, starting the year she’d become a staff writer. She blasted up the ranks so fast that she soon outgrew his practice and was going to move up to an entertainment management firm, but when she came in to tell him his services were no longer required, she could tell he’d been crying.

He tried to cover it up, act as if nothing had happened, but she pried it out of him. He’d fled Iraq just before Desert Storm and was trying to get asylum, but his application had been rejected and he was expected to leave the country in two weeks. Just like that, some bureaucratic decision. Pamela was outraged.

“Isn’t there anything you can do?” she asked.

“No,” Oded replied. “Well, get married, but I don’t know anybody, that’s not going to happen.”

“Marry me.”

“What?”

She repeated the question, just as abruptly. Why not? She needed somebody to keep an eye on the kids, and the accounting thing could be useful. Not to mention the tax breaks, if she paid him for his work.

“It would be strictly a business arrangement,” she explained. “Pre-nup, of course, what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is all mine.”

“Let me think about it…” Oded said, but she could tell he seriously was considering it.

Ten days later, he said yes and they were married the next day, which was Valentine’s Day, but that was strictly coincidental. That was seven years ago, just before Father’s Daughters aired as a mid-season replacement. By their first anniversary, Pamela finally had everything she’d ever wanted — career, house, children, husband. Everything except the Emmy, but now she had that, and life was complete.

And the party on Saturday was going to be a success if it killed her, and Althea would be happy again.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #67: Pamela Rewarded Part 2

Continuing a short story from a collection I wrote around the turn of the century. In part 1: It’s September, 1999, and Pamela is the producer of a hit TV show — the only hit on a crappy network, which just won an Emmy. But that didn’t stop the network from deciding that this would be the last season, and the show ends in May, 2000. Also, keep your eyes peeled for an appearance by someone you may have met a couple of Saturdays ago in another short story from this collection.

The last season came together and Pamela had managed to talk Vince and Mister out of their stupider ideas — no, she was not going to have a disgruntled ex-employee blow up the family’s church during services in the penultimate episode leading into the sweeps month two-hour series finale, nor have the oldest son come out as gay. “This show is not Sunset Circle,” she’d told them in response to that one, taking one last swipe at Chuck and Cindy and their show, which had been renewed. Again.

At least she managed to talk them into giving two of the daughters less than happy endings. In the back of her mind, these were her secret spin-off seeds that might bear fruit later.

But as May rolled around, it was time for that annual ritual, the wrap party, that was always at its most maudlin when it happened for the final time.

She stood by the bar at the Century Club, Althea and Oded at her side, holding court as one network exec after another came by to say how sad they were that Father’s Daughters was over. She smiled, shook their hands, pretended to accept their condolences, knowing exactly which ones had voted her down. The grand finale aired in two days, the writers’ offices had long since been abandoned and the studio space was already re-rented and being re-tooled for a new show. This party was a footnote, but an obligatory one, the official wake for the corpse that was already decomposing.

The actors were avoiding her, the ones that had bothered to show up. A cast of seven regulars and three top-of-show recurring roles, and four of them weren’t there. The leading lady, the oldest daughter, middle daughter’s boyfriend and the wise-beyond his years teenage son, all missing in action. So was a big chunk of the crew and half of the writing staff. That would never have happened before, not in the days when she had everybody walking on eggshells to keep their jobs. But that power had been broken. She couldn’t fire people who didn’t work for her anymore.

The exec parade petered out and Pamela finished her drink — club soda — and Oded took her glass unbidden, heading to the bar for refills. Pamela wasn’t paying attention to him, though. She rarely did. She was wondering where her son had snuck off to, then she looked at her daughter.

Althea was brooding, face down, looking bored out of her skull. She’d been doing that a lot lately. Pamela had tried everything to snap her out of it — a shopping trip to the original Neiman-Marcus in Dallas, a new car, tickets and a backstage pass to an N’Sync concert, a spa-day makeover. Nothing worked. She’d never thought of things like family counseling or Prozac, not for any of them, because they weren’t that kind of family. They were a happy family, an ideal family, Pamela was convinced of that. They were the family that rarely existed in the real world, the old-time, traditional, fully functional TV family. There were no flaws here, none that Pamela could see.

“Isn’t this a great party?” she said to Althea.

“Can we go?” Althea muttered.

“In a while,” Pamela answered. “I kind of have to be here, you know.”

Althea rolled her eyes, sighed.

“Hey, tomorrow, why don’t you and I go to Tiffany — “

“I’m busy tomorrow.”

“All day?”

“Yeah.”

“You know, somebody has a birthday coming up,” Pamela sing-songed. “Have you made your list yet?”

“No.” Althea glanced up, on the edge of saying something, but then she looked down again, shook her head, started to walk away. “I’m going to dance.”

And Pamela was reaching after her, but Althea had blasted off and was already halfway to the dance floor. “Why don’t you dance with Oded?” she called out, but it was buried in the noise from the DJ and the thousand schmoozy conversations. That was the real function of one of these parties, she knew. Finding the next job. Nobody was here for her.

Nobody, goddammit. Nobody. The few of her own people who’d bothered to show weren’t even coming to this corner. She could see all the writers’ assistants huddled on the balcony, looking down at the dance floor, glum. Her story editors were off with Chuck, laughing and joking.

Her co-executive producer wasn’t here yet, but that was par for the course. It always took that woman four hours to get ready to go anywhere, and it was amazing she ever found designer-anything for these affairs in her size, which was thirty-four if it was a day. Still, Steph was the only one Pamela could trust, the one who was always letting her know who was out to get her, the one confirming rumors that would otherwise have just been paranoia.

“I’m worried about so-an-so” coming from Steph’s lips was usually the thin end of the wedge that would always end, a few weeks later, in somebody else getting fired. She was a good person to have around.

But, until she got here, Pamela was standing alone by the bar in the Century Club, feeling isolated in the darkness, waiting for the proper obeisance to be paid. She remembered some old movie line, some Chinese actor, saying “I see a room full of empty people.” That was certainly true. Empty, and apparently blind.

Oded returned, handed her the glass. She looked at it, thrust it back to him.

“Where’s the goddamn ice?” she snapped.

Oded shot back to the bar without a word.

* * *
Pamela sat in the garden behind the house, best-selling novel she was trying to option for a movie-of-the-week splayed open on the ground next to her iced-tea. It was the story of a young Irish Catholic priest in Seattle who becomes an Anglican minister in order to get married, but then moves to England when his wife’s father gets sick. The whole thing was perfect for TV. But after two months, she hadn’t convinced anyone else of that. At least she didn’t have to worry about going broke, not for a long time, but a big shot of cash soon would still be nice. It always was.

Her life had been perfect for TV. She’d lived one sitcom after another, wound up in a one-hour drama, ending in a heartwarming family show. Her first husband had been a soldier, her high school boyfriend. She’d married him in a fit of panic before he shipped off to Viet Nam. God, whenever she thought about that, she felt so old.

By the time he’d come back two years later, she’d really grown cold on him, but they were married, after all, and he came with benefits — medical insurance, housing. He’d also come out of the war relatively unscathed, decision made to become a career soldier.

But it had turned into a strange marriage of convenience a few years later, when she caught him with that Navy boy — and didn’t really care. Roger had freaked out, but she told him they had a pretty nice arrangement. She got to live a lot of places, meet a lot of people. He got to have the show wife, obligatory for an officer. And necessary, to cover up other activities, which could have led to a court martial and dishonorable discharge. But, naturally, if he was fooling around, there was no reason for her not to. She’d always wanted children.

Roger never knew that Walter was actually his. It had been a very strange night, after a very rough year. Pamela had been pregnant — that one belonged to a very nice young Sergeant who worked with Roger at the DOD — but then she had a miscarriage. That had been at Thanksgiving. Then, about a week later, Roger came in, drunk, depressed. She’d been inside all day, hadn’t watched the news, so she had no idea.

But he was crying and started drinking everything in the house. Then he lay on the sofa next to her, put his head in her arms. She stroked his hair and he kept crying, then he suddenly sat up, turned and kissed her, jamming his tongue in her mouth. God, they hadn’t done that since high school.

Suddenly, he was all over her, which was strange, but she didn’t stop him. He pulled off her clothes with silent need, dragged her into the bedroom while pulling off his own, then threw her on the bed and climbed on top.

Pamela was amazed. She had never been fucked with such desperate energy before, or as roughly. Roger was pounding her like uncooked Chicken Kiev, headboard slamming into the wall, and then he ripped the fitted sheet off the bed as he clutched it in orgasmic spasm, elastic snapping into Pamela’s shoulders as Roger shuddered out a groan, then rolled off of her.

He didn’t remember a thing in the morning, and she never reminded him. But she would never forget the night that Walter was conceived. How could anyone of her generation ever forget the date December 8, 1980?

Just to make sure, she didn’t see the young sergeant again until the doctor told her she was pregnant. But she never told Roger that he was the baby’s father. Better that way. Yes, officially, Walter was Roger’s son. But the emotional value of Roger not knowing that would help if any future arguments about those sorts of things came up.

Althea was definitely not his, and Pamela didn’t have to withhold any information to assure him of it. That night in December was the one and only time she and her first husband had ever had sex. One single incident in nearly twenty years.

And then it was over, divorce finally granted not long before Roger suddenly “retired” from the military. She always knew there was something funny about that, him leaving the service at the ripe old age of thirty-nine after an abrupt three pay-grade promotion, and with a ridiculous pension.

But they’d made a deal. Roger would never try to see Walter, and Pamela would release all rights to any of his benefits. She hadn’t been living with him for about five years at that point, anyway. She’d already moved out to Los Angeles. She ran into Roger once, after the divorce, saw him getting out of a brand-new BMW — a seven series, not a three, meaning he really had money, he wasn’t just pretending. They chatted briefly, he mentioned his house in Laurel Canyon, which he’d just bought. So, maybe Pamela had gotten the short end on that one.

But that didn’t matter. It freed her up to marry Dennis, finally. It was about time, since they’d been together for four years already. The kids needed a father in the house, and Dennis repaired motorcycles for a living, out of the garage. Sure, it was a little blue collar, but it gave her time, so she could take a job as a production assistant for a TV show and work insane hours. But some day, she hoped, it would be worth it.

Apparently, though, she wasn’t the only one working long hours. She’d found that out when she went to look for a screwdriver in the garage one night, opened the toolbox and a plastic bag fell off the bottom of the worktable, splitting open on the floor, spattering white powder across her feet.

She could smell it from here and knew what it was, and she went ballistic. Nobody was going to endanger her children like that. If the cops raided the place, arrested them both, what would happen to the kids?

When Dennis returned that evening, she dragged him out to the garage, pointed at the debris on the floor and said one word. “Bye.” That night, she had a twenty-four-hour locksmith change everything. The next morning, she called a lawyer to arrange one divorce and one arrest. As soon as she was absolutely sure she wouldn’t get into any legal trouble by reporting what was in the garage, she called the police, told them the story and they found Dennis three hours later. Of course, that hadn’t been difficult. He was already in custody, picked up for drunk driving the night before.

By that point, she’d maneuvered over to a position as writer’s assistant on a hit half-hour sitcom. It was an easier show than most, because every episode was written by the producer. He didn’t have a writing staff. He didn’t need one. The man seemed to work twenty-four hours a day, and he was funny, pulling off elaborate verbal riffs in dialogue that just kept building and building on jokes until it all just exploded in a brilliant comedy gut-punch right before the act out. He’d been doing that for two seasons now, solo, with no sign of slowing down.

Then, one day, he suddenly had her calling writer’s agents, setting up meetings. And he farmed out a script to an up-and-coming twenty-two-year-old. And then another, two in seven weeks. By the middle of the season, he was wondering aloud to Pamela whether he should hire a writing staff next season. By the time they got picked up for another two seasons and had eight shows left to shoot for this one, he offered her a script. Of course she said yes, despite having no experience, which she admitted — but he just told her that never stopped anyone else in this business.

And suddenly, Pamela had become a TV writer and climbed up a rung, and she became a staff writer the next season and she never knew why the producer had suddenly changed his ways. She wasn’t in the gossip loop. Yet.

She never would know that the man had been one of Dennis’ clients, and the arrest had spooked him out of all his bad habits.

That falling bag had been her big break in more ways than one.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #66: Pamela Rewarded Part 1

All you need to know: This story, which I’ll have to serialize, was part of the 24 Exposures collection, which I wrote around 1999-2001. It’s definitely pre-911, pre smart phones, pre social media. This story, though, was largely inspired by my own career in television. Enjoy!

She held the thing in her hands, feeling its weight, admiring its elegant yet simple curves, sweeping up from the base and straining for the heavens with its big, round summit. It was huge. And heavy. Much heavier than she’d expected.

She lifted it up to her chin, then carefully slid it into place, backwards onto the high shelf, where two precisely arranged pin-lights perfectly augmented its gleaming golden highlights, its engraved plaque, upswept wings and wire-work globe. It was a woman, winged Victory or a take on Nike, carrying the world. It was a token that the woman looking at it, Pamela, had succeeded, finally, in a man’s world.

“The Emmy is up, let’s go out to dinner!” Pamela shouted, her voice booming off the high ceiling and enormous walls. Her husband, Oded, came dashing into the room, that worried look on his face that he’d done something else wrong. “Where are the kids?” she asked him.

He shrugged. “Walter, off with his friends somewhere. I think Althea’s in her room.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be watching them?” She was giving him that look he hated.

“Walter’s on winter break, let him enjoy it.”

“My daughter isn’t.”

“Uh… Althea doesn’t really like me following her around everywhere. She is seventeen — “

“Seventeen, not eighteen. Seven. Seven, as in not eight, not old enough, not an adult — “

“Okay, okay, got it,” Oded waved her off. He hated it when she started writing TV dialogue, and especially when she started spouting her own show’s party line, mid-argument. Frequent mid-argument, lately. “Should I go get her?”

“Yes,” Pamela blurted, volume up to emphasize the stupidity of the question. Oded hurried out of the room. “Well,” she thought to herself, “At least I managed to find the one docile Iraqi on the planet.”

She looked at the Emmy again, staring at it. At hers. It was the crown jewel of her life, new centerpiece (besides herself) of this four-million-dollar house with the full five-car garage, money pouring in hand over fist because TV was a mammon machine (for the right people), the servants, the garden, two kids, her husband. And an Emmy.

“Here we go again,” she thought to herself as she got to work very early on Monday morning, her office still stuffed with week-old congratulatory baskets and flowers and other clones of Things Executives Sent that were all bought at the same Store Where Executives Get Them. Well, more correctly, Where Executives’ Assistants Order Them by Phone, she thought as her assistant popped in the door, messages in hand. He was holding one out to her, saying words she hadn’t quite focused on yet. But she never let on to that. Instead, she had subtly conditioned her staff to over-explain everything, so she could catch it the second or third time around, then cut them off. Always make them feel like the dumb ones, that was the key.

“Narita called three times already. She said Mister wants to see you as soon as you’re in — “

“Now?” she asked. Her assistant nodded. “Okay,” she said, instinctively reaching for her purse as he stepped out the door. How did make-up always manage to vanish in the car? She touched up her lips and her eyes, checked the hair, the teeth. Made a mental note — collagen, no; Botox, god yes; have Louanne touch up the roots Friday; remember to get that cap checked. Good. Instinctively, she knew this was just going to be an official face-to-face congratulations for finally snagging the company its golden lady, a thank you from the old man for all her help. Still, any trip up to Mr. Torand’s office that hadn’t been scheduled three weeks in advance made her nervous.

She walked the long hall, came at last to the far lobby, and saw the guard pick up the phone the instant she was in sight, heard him say, “She’s here.” Before she could speak, he’d hung up and was buzzing open the door. “They’re expecting you,” he said, and she passed through to the inner sanctum.

They are expecting you. How did he mean that? “They” meaning the boss and his execs, or they meaning the boss and… network execs? Maybe, but they never went out of their way to compliment awards. Anyway, the pick-up for next season and the one after that were a slam dunk. That was all the compliment she needed.

Narita stood up and said hello, escorting Pamela to the big door. She swung it open and stepped into the room, where the boss’s big oak desk was dwarfed by the walls, looking a third its real size at the end of a long, white carpet. Mr. Torand was the only one in there. It wasn’t until she saw Narita that Pamela realized the guard was talking about the assistants when he said “they.” Well, of course he would. His “they” was not Pamela’s “they.” His “they” didn’t matter. Obvious now, but Pamela hadn’t thought of it before. At least it meant the meeting would be short and easy.

Mr. Torand was standing by a bookshelf, which was crammed with People’s Choice type awards, staring intently at a singing bass, which was going through its routine. He was humming along with it, laughing. Pamela approached cautiously. She was always amazed at what the boss found amusing. Sometimes, it was hard to believe he was the founder of a billion-dollar empire. He looked like somebody’s slightly ditzy grandfather, and preferred jeans, sneakers and sweaters around the office. He was holding a pipe in one hand, which he now brought to his lips and lit. He took a puff, chuckled at the fish again, then looked toward her, gave her a big smile. “Pammy, how’s my girl?” he asked. He was one of those people who was so respected that a comment like that never elicited any negative response. He was too old for it to have those connotations, a relic of a different world. “Like my fish?”

Pamela forced a smile. “It’s very funny. Where did you get it?” Of course, she knew damn well where. It was the sixth one she’d seen this month.

“Chuck got it somewhere for me, I don’t know exactly.” He looked at it again and chuckled. He loved animated toys. He still owned one of every Furby ever made, but he never used a computer.

“So…” he suddenly turned the fish off, trotted to the door and closed it, signaling to Narita, no calls. Bad sign, Pamela thought, getting a little nervous as she walked to his desk. He gestured her over to the sofa instead. Really bad sign, Pamela knew. She sat, sinking into the leather bedlam that spanned three walls. Mr. Torand sat in an armchair.

“You guys,” he began. “We finally have an Emmy.” He looked dreamily at the ceiling. He’d been in the business for decades but was never associated with that elusive “quality” that put TV shows into rarefied ranks. And yet, he’d had one hit after another, so he was obviously doing something right. Since his own peers did the nominating for the real awards, it was obvious they had begrudged him his success until, finally, acknowledgement had become unavoidable. At least, that’s what he’d thought when the winner was announced. He’d found out not long after that there were other reasons, and so the Emmy lost a little bit of the vindicatory power it had wielded on awards night. And sweet Jesus, he had to try to explain that now. How the hell was he going to do that?

Pamela saw the drifting look in his eyes, the slightly open mouth, avoiding her gaze. She knew that look. It was the stasis before disaster, the firefly moment when the news is telegraphed before delivery. It lasted half a second, and then the old man inhaled, flipped his hands, began.

“I don’t know how to tell you this,” he said. “But I just got the call from the network, and they’ve decided not to pick you up after this season. Your last episode will be next May. I’m sorry.”

The floor fell away. She couldn’t believe it. She stared at the old man, rage building. What were they thinking? Hers was the only show that had any kind of audience on that crappy network. The only one to ever even be nominated for an Emmy, much less win one. The only goddamn thing they had going for them, and they were pulling the plug?

“Motherfuckers,” she spat out. “Why?”

“They said that they felt the series had explored all the areas it had to explore and that it tapped out its potential, and nothing further could ever live up to how good it was in the past. They decided to end it on a high note.”

“I got them a fucking Emmy!” she shouted, then caught the faux pas. “We have done more for them than anybody else.”

“I know, I know, Pammy,” he said. “You guys have been doing great work. I fought for you, I really pleaded with them, said you had a lot more great material in you, could win them a few more next year, but… well, you know how political these things can be. What with Billy getting fired last year, and he was a big supporter of yours. Look on the bright side. Syndication.”

True, she thought. After seven years, there were enough shows in the can to make Father’s Daughters as ubiquitous as I Love Lucy. The money would keep rolling in for a long time. But, despite that, she was going to become the most useless commodity in the industry in eight months. Well, realistically when they wrapped, in six months: An out-of-work show‑runner.

“Anyway,” the old man went on, “we want to do something really special with the farewell arc and the finale. I’ll have Vince come by with our ideas later.”

And he was standing already. That was it. So she knew two things, at least. One, there was no way in hell the network would be convinced to change their mind, not by anyone, not for anything. Two, all the old man’s comments about fighting for her had been bullshit. That was par for the course. Pamela stood, walking to the door. The one thing of which there was no shortage in the television business was bullshit. The politics made it as horrific and treacherous as a junior high school playground.

Oh, but the money.

And syndication —money for nothing, and the tricks are free.

* * *
Her head was reeling as she walked back down the long hallway. As she neared the elevators, she heard familiar voices, the producers on another company show. She stopped and listened. News traveled through this place like air through a natural blonde.

“But, come on, that show was over two seasons ago,” one of them said. It was Chuck, who had had more cancellations and resurrections than anybody else on the planet.

“True,” that was Cindy, his co-producer. “It was pretty tired last season. I’m surprised they’re even going to try to squeeze one more out of it.”

“Well, how many times can you do the ‘Father Rick Saves the Runaway Teen’ story, anyway?” Chuck laughed. “Bor-ing.”

Well, of course someone like him would find it boring, Pamela thought. His shows were always overheated soap operas, one couple after another playing randy roulette, no basic values, everybody out to screw everybody else, literally and figuratively. His shows weren’t like real life. They were like… hell, they were just like TV.

“Think she’ll manage to fire this staff before the series ends?” Cindy wondered.

“Why not? She’s done it, what, five times?”

Pamela drew herself up, thinking “God, what losers.” She decided this was the moment for the awkward end-of-act entrance, the big handjob that would bring the viewers back after the commercial: “INSERT Pamela, just off the lobby, listening. She reacts, then walks by.” No… “She reacts, then draws herself up with dignity and walks by.”

“Hello!” Pamela called out. Cindy blanched, but Chuck, ever the pro, smiled and waved as if nothing had happened.

“Hey, congrats on that Emmy,” he called out.

“Thanks,” Pamela answered, continuing on. She wrote the tag in her head. “Chuck and Cindy exchange a look. Busted. Fade out. End of Act.”

But not end of show. Not for one more season.

* * *

More misused words

It can be a chore sometimes trying to convince people that spelling and grammar are important. And FSM knows I can be a hypocrite in that I roll my eyes and say, “Oh, hell no” every time someone laments the inability of people nowadays to write or read in cursive.

Then again, I really don’t see the point of cursive, especially not when we can do most things by keyboard. Although the flip-side of that advantage is that it lends itself to text speak and emojis — which is fine in the context of messaging, where it works. But if you’re attempting anything more formal, and that includes arguing about shit in social media, then for the moment you still want to go for the good spelling and grammar.

Why? Because to do otherwise really undercuts your argument. If you have sloppy grammar or bad spelling, it tells us one of two things, depending upon your attitude about it.

First, if you misspell or misuse words and don’t care, or spell them like you hear them instead of like they are (e.g. caught in the wild: “riddens” instead of “riddance”) then it tells us that you are intellectually lazy, so that means we don’t have to bother listening to anything you have to say, because you haven’t bothered to research it, you’re only parroting what you’ve been told, thank you and good night.

And if you misspell or misuse words because you just can’t remember the difference between things like your and you’re, that tells me that you really can’t retain easily learned information, and probably are not the best choice for trusting with anything complicated.

Hint: At those times when I’ve been in charge of hiring, cull trick number one was to dump any résumé with an unforced error in either of these areas. Note that this doesn’t include typos. For example, if I see “the” where you clearly meant “they,” that gets a bit of a pass. But if you mix up (or make up) words or spell things wrong, then… b’bye.

That said, here are some more heinous abuses of the language that I’ve seen in the wild in just the last couple of weeks.

Raindeer instead of reindeer

I suppose this might make sense since these noble creatures are associated with Santa Claus and winter and a time when it might rain, except that reindeer and Santa are associated with the North Pole (or at least Finland and Lapland), so if they were being named because of the weather, they’d probably be snowdeer.

Not to mention that they’re more elk-like. But the whole idea of the “rein” in “reindeer” is that reins are things you put on animals to steer them.. The most famous example of reined animals are horses, although you can rein cattle. You don’t rein oxen, though, you yoke them, and they seem to figure it out from there.

Nobody puts Bambi in a yoke. Or reins. Or a corner. But as for those fabulous Lap cervidae with the fabulous antlers… better rein them in so that they can lead Santa’s sleigh.

A quick way to remember that “rain” is wrong — the last thing you’d want is reindeer raining down from the sky.

I won’t get into people mixing up “sleigh” vs. “slay” here now, though.

Adieu instead of ado

Most often seen in a phrase like “with no further adieu (sic)…”

This is an interesting example of ignorance trying to appear more intelligent, since there’s the appropriation of a French word there — adieu, for good-bye, which is a cognate of the Spanish adios, both of which literally mean “to god!” And if you take them in the context of when and where they originated, they were basically saying, “Hope to see you again, but if you die of plague before that, which is really likely old friend, may you go to heaven.”

Whoa. Heavy. So saying “Much go to god” makes no sense at all. Instead, we have the early middle English word (thanks Willy Shakes) a-do, which takes that old Romance pronoun “a,” meaning motion toward, and sticks it on that definitely English verb “do,” which is such a powerful auxiliary verb in the language that it steps in for most translations of direct questions in romance languages.

“¿Hablas español?” “Do you speak Spanish?”

“¿Quién lo hagas?” “Who did it?”

 “¿Sabes qué hora es?” “Do you know what time it is?”

I guess the only trick here is to think of the “a” in the negative as “nothing more to,” and then naturally sticking it on the verb to do, dropping the to. Or, in other words, why not the phrase “With nothing more to do” or “No more to do before…”

With no further ado…

Per say instead of per se

This one is simply an example of never having seen the word in print and pushing English onto it. Except, if you’ve ever studied any Romance language or Latin, this form makes sense, because the pronoun “se” will immediately hit your eye as a thing that’s used to create the passive tense, at least in Spanish.

You’ve probably seen “Se habla español,” and what it means is “Spanish is spoken here.” Well, at least in English translation. A more literal translation that is not as English friendly would be something like “it is spoken, Spanish.”

As for “per” it’s a well-used word in English, and you see it in prices all the time. “How much are the lemons?” “They’re $1.25 per pound.”

In other words, “per” in English means “for” or “for each.” Pretty much the same as it means in Latin or, shift it to “por,” in Spanish.

Put the two together and, in Latin, it makes total sense: per se, for itself. In Spanish, not so much, and “por se” is not a thing. But the important thing on top of that is that “say” is not a word in Spanish, Latin, French, Portuguese, or Romanian.

Which brings us right back to the original and only translation. Something noted with “per se” is by, of, for, or in itself. So… “I’m not saying that all Romans will know this expression per se, but I think a lot of them will…”

Complimented instead of complemented

This one is not as hard as it might seem. Compliment means to say something nice about someone. Complement means to go together. So here’s the reminder: In order for you to get a compliment, I have to do it. Well, someone has to, but the point of the mnemonic is that compliment has an I in it. Complement doesn’t.

As for “complement,” it all goes together, as in the word has one O, two E’s, and no other vowels. Or you can think of the word complete, and remember that when one thing complements another, it completes it.

When in their adjectival forms, complimentary and complementary, you can remember which is which in pretty much the same way. As for the other meaning of complimentary — something received for free, like a hotel’s complimentary buffet — remember the I because it’s a gift.

Breaking instead of braking

The trick here is in the vowels. Well, sort of. If you’re talking about a car — or an auto or any vehicle stopped by gripping the wheels or other things — then the only vowel is an “a.” Ergo, the word is braking. Hit the brakes. Brake to a stop. Brake the car. Or… brake the automobile, which starts with A.

Now, you’d think that the name for a light-weight jacket often made of synthetic materials should then be a “windbraker” becase it stops the wind, but it’s not. It’s a windbreaker. Now why is it called that? If it’s because it breaks wind, that would be a really neat trick for a jacket to pull off, not to mention either amusing or alarming, depending upon your sense of humor. (Personally, I’d find it hilarious.)

The real answer is that Windbreaker® is a registered trademark of the company John Rissman & Son, so in reality we should really use the alternate name windcheater. However, Windbreaker is going the way of Kleenex and Xerox, both trademarks that have basically become generic in common usage.

Or, in other words, a lot of people probably ask for a Kleenex instead of a tissue, or use the Xerox machine even if it’s a Canon or Brother, and we all google stuff even if we’re using Bing — but, really, why would anyone be? What we don’t see are companies releasing things like “Billy Johnson’s kleenex” or “FlurfingtonCo xerox machine,” because those would still violate the law.

Oops. Let me put the brakes on that digression. The other word, “break,” basically means to divide, shatter, ruin, wreck, interrupt, or make something useless or incomplete. Break-up, prison break, break dishes, break the mold, break a record, and so on.

It can also mean to suddenly start something — break into a sweat, break into a run, break out in song — or to prepare something for use — break in the car.

One use that simultaneously interrupts one thing and starts another is going to be the key to remembering this spelling, and that’s breakfast. If you’ve never really thought about it, that word may seem weird, but let’s break it down (see what I did there?) so that we get break and fast.

Fun fact: the word is exactly the same in Spanish: desayunar, to breakfast, combines the verb ayunar, to fast, with the prefix des-, which means to remove. The noun form is desayuno. And yes, in English it is entirely possible to say, “Let us breakfast this morning” and use the word as a verb.

Now where did fasting come into it the equation? Simple. You haven’t eaten anything since before you went to bed the night before, which should have been at least eight hours ago. So when you have your morning meal, you are interrupting, or breaking, that fast. At the same time, this meal is the start of your day. So you get two interpretations of break for the price of one. And since you do it by eating, there you go. This version of the word that sounds like braking has “ea” in it. And you can’t eat or break without them.

Playwrights write down rites just right

An interesting quartet of heterographs in English are the words rite, right, write, and wright. While the latter three are frequently used with prefixes, the first three also stand alone, and the first one is never prefixed. The second of these has multiple meanings in… well… its own right.

I’ll start with the one I don’t need to go into depth on: Rite. This is the word describing any kind of ritualized ceremony, and you can clearly see that “rite” and “ritual” are related. Rites can be either religious or secular in nature, and they sometimes mix. Weddings and funerals can be either or sometimes both, while baptisms and confirmations are strictly religious. Graduations tend to be secular except in religious schools, although the only religious elements then tend to be an opening invocation or prayer and, sometimes, an optional Mass afterwards. The pledge of allegiance and national anthem are both secular rites. It’s a toss-up either way whether initiation ceremonies for certain organizations like the Masons are religious or secular, although most fraternity and sorority initiations are certainly the most secular of rituals.

Of course, if you and a group of friends regularly get together for Game Night, or Game of Thrones Night, or, like me, do Improv, those are also rites by definition, and again of the most secular kind. Note that all theatre is a rite because it’s structured and has its rules and way of doing things. Not surprising, considering that theatre originated as a religious ceremony in the first place and then grew out of it.

Next is the one with multiple meanings: Right. In its first definition, it refers to some action or thing that people are assumed to have the privilege to possess without meeting any special conditions. That is, a right is a thing you can do, a belief you can hold, or a thing you can own. Of course, “without special conditions” is itself a conditional statement, since in most places rights are established via laws or Constitutions. After all, while the American Declaration of Independence says that our unalienable rights include the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, it’s predicated by the statement that it’s a self-evident truth that all men are created equal (emphasis on “men,” naturally), and followed by the idea that governments are created in order to secure these rights.

Note that, at the time, slavery was legal, and in the new country called the United States of America, only white, male, land-owning men over the age of 21 got to vote. No one else needed to apply. So those unalienable rights were relative after all.

Another meaning of the word “right” is the direction — the hand on the gearshift side (if you’re American and drive manual transmission) or the arm on the opposite side of your body from most of your heart (unless you have situs inversus). There’s also the “right hand rule,” which is used in math, physics, and 3D animation, and is basically a way of visualizing how three directional axes move at once. In the 3D animation world, these are X, Y and Z — generally left-right, forward-back, and up-down.

And then there are… well, damn. The dictionary lists 48 different definitions of the word “right,” as adjective, noun, and adverb. I’ll be right back after I read them all…

(See what I did there?)

Okay, are we all right as rain? Good. Let’s move on to the next one. That would be the word write, which is what I’m doing right now (make it stop!). And while this one technically has 17 definitions, they all really boil down to the same thing: to put information into some form that is inscribed onto a surface via abstract characters that represent sounds, syllables, or concepts, whether ink on paper, hieroglyphics on stone, electrons on computer chips, or notes on a musical staff. The act of doing so is the word write as a verb: to write.

The last of the quartet is wright, and he’s a sad little camper because he has only one definition: a worker, especially one that constructs something. He also never appears alone.

Now let’s get to some compounds using the last three and clear up some confusion. For example… you wrote a play. So does that make you:

  1. A playwrite
  2. A playwright

Well, it’s a play and you wrote it, right? Yes, but you also created it, and this is one of the specific uses for… wright. You constructed a play, so you’re a playwright.

Okay, so you’ve written the play and now you want to make sure that everyone knows you own it so they can’t steal it. Time to file it with the Library of Congress. So do you get:

  1. Copywright
  2. Copywrite
  3. Copyright

Hm. Well, you’re a playwright and you don’t want it copied. Oh, wait. Wouldn’t a “copywright” be someone who makes copies? Then maybe… oh yeah. You wrote it, so you’d write the copies, hence you’d copywrite…? Wrong? Of course. Because what this word is really saying is that you have the right to copy the work, since you own it.

Here’s an easy way to remember. When the word “write” is prefixed, it always refers to the style or method of writing, and not really the person. It’s only a person if the word ends with “writer,” but note that “copywrite” is never a verb. You can’t say “I copywrite for XYZ Blog,” but you can say “I’m a copywriter for XYZ Blog.”

As for words that end in “right,” immediately ignore any that actually end in “wright” or in other words that overlap, like “bright,” or “fright.” You’ll find that the few of these that exist really just modify one of the many other meanings of “right.”

And then there’s “wright.” What’s really fascinating about this word is that there are so many occupations, many long forgotten, that not only use this word, but have given names to the English language — and which also remind us of all those other occupational names, and not obvious ones, like Baker.

Playwright I’ve already mentioned. But what would you go to a wainwright for? No… not someone who designs your Batmobile. Although maybe. A wain was a farm wagon or cart, so a wainwright was a cart-maker. And if that cart were going to be a covered wagon, he’d probably need the services of a cooper to make the metal ribs to hold up the canvas. He’d probably also work in close partnership with a wheelwright, who does exactly what you think.

Side note: Ever heard the word “wainscot?” It isn’t related to wagons, but to wood. It’s one of those fun cases of similar sounding words coming from different origins entirely.

Other wrights you might have seen: shipwright and millwright, both of which should be self-evident. And a lot of these wrights would have relied upon the work of smiths, who are people that work with metal. Pretty much it’s a game of “metal+smith” and there’s the occupation. That’s because the word “smith” meant “to hit,” which is what metal works do to form their molten raw materials. Hm. I wonder whether “smith” and “smash” are related.

And then there’s “blacksmith,” which brings up the question, “Hey — why not ironsmith?” The simple answer is that iron used to be called “black metal” because that’s what it looked like in its unoxidized form — ever see iron filings? For similar reasons, tinsmiths are also called whitesmiths. Compare the word “tinker,” who was someone who repaired household utensils, most of which had probably been made by smiths. Or maybe potters.

Another fascinating thing about these occupations is how persistent they become as last names. I mean, there’s Rufus Wainwright, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gary Cooper, Will Smith, Josephine Baker, TV producer Grant Tinker, the fictional Harry Potter and the very real creator of the fictional Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter.

But the real point here, as always, is how four words that sound exactly alike but which are spelled so differently and have such different meanings managed to land in the language through very different routes, because that is what makes English so interesting, versatile, and difficult. I’d probably be right to say that it’s a rite of passage for everyone who’s trying to learn how to write English to mess this stuff up until they meet a wordwright to help them. I hope that I can fulfill that occupation and set things right.

Good night!

You have the right to remain silent

I’ve often told people that I’m glad I grew up in an English-speaking country, although not out of any kind of chauvinism. Rather, it’s just that if I hadn’t learned English as my first language, I doubt that I ever would have been able to learn it as my second, and a huge part of that is because the spelling and pronunciation of things just seem to make no damn sense. There’s an example right there: we spell it “pronunciation” as a noun, but as a verb it’s “pronounce.” Ta… what? Where’d that extra “o” come from?

The only other language I can think of off the top of my head where the spelling seems to make no sense is Irish Gaelic. Let’s just look at a few names. The example a lot of people probably know is Sinéad, as in Sinéad O’Connor. Now, if you didn’t know, you’d probably think it was “Sineed” or “SinEE-ad,” but it’s not. It’s “shi-NAYD.” A couple of Oscar shows back, we all learned that Saoirse wasn’t “sao-irse” or “sa-oyers,” but “SEER-sha.”

So what would you make of the names Niamh or Caoimhe? Neeam and Cammy, right? Nope. Neev (or NEE-av) and KEE-va.

Now, I’m assured that the rules of pronouncing words in Gaelic are completely consistent and easy to remember, but I’ve tried to learn the language, since it is part of my genetic background, and failed miserably. Then again, looking at the last three names together, it does start to make sense, although it’s still a brain breaker.

No such luck in English. It’s tough enough to plough through without silent letters messing things up. Even if you had read it in your head before you read it out loud, you could still make big mistakes if you’re not completely fluent.

I’m not even going to get into all the multiple ways various vowels and diphthongs can be pronounced — and note that diphthong can either be pronounced as “dipthong” (more common) or “difthong” (rarer.) I’m more interested in one particular culprit for this post, though: The Silent E.

In English, the pronunciation of vowels is not consistent as it is in a lot of other Indo-European languages, particularly the Romance languages. In the latter, whatever their vowels are — typically A, E, I, O, U — each have the same pronunciation. In Spanish, for example, they are ah, eh, ee, oh, oo. To jump to Germanic, they are very similar in Deutsche, too: ah, ay, ih, oh, oo.

Any changes come through putting two vowels together, and they’re also consistent. For example, in German, put “ie” together and you get “ee.” In Spanish, put “ui” together and get “uee” On the other hand, other combos in Spanish just give you two syllables. “AE” in a word like “caer,” for example, gives you “ky-air,” the infinitive form of the verb “to fall.”

There’s another concept Spanish has that English doesn’t: Strong and weak vowels. A, O, and U are strong. E and I are weak. And it plays out like this — by affecting certain consonants that come before the vowels, as well as how the vowels combine. In Spanish, the affected consonants tend to be C and G. When the C comes before a strong vowel, then it has the hard K sound (casa — kah-sa); when it comes before a weak vowel, then it’s an S (ciudad — see-ooh dahd). Likewise, when G comes before a strong vowel, it’s more of a hard G (dame gasolina… that second word is pronounced just like in English) and before a weak vowel, more of an H; general, “HEN-eh-ral.”

Final note: notice that the “CIU” combo in “ciudad” is pronounced “see-ooh. That happens when you put a weak vowel before a strong one. It’s the opposite of the “UI” combo. When the strong vowel comes first, the weak one gets absorbed, more or less.

None of which has anything at all to do with how fucked up English vowels are, except as an example of a language with easy and consistent rules. Know how the vowels and diphthongs in Spanish or German or Italian work? Then you’re good to go, and can read and pronounce any word you run across. Period.

Meanwhile, in English, we have little word pairs like these: cat, Cate; fat, fate; gat, gate; hat, hate; mat, mate; Nat, Nate; pat, pate; rat, rate; sat, sate; bit, bite; kit, kite; sit, site; bon, bone; con, cone; don, done; non, none; ton, tone; dun, dune; run, rune.

There are probably a lot more, but I stuck to single-consonant starts. The interesting thing to notice, though, is that we have examples for every first vowel except for E. The only example I can kind of stretch out of it are “Ben” and “Bene” (bin and baynay), but that only works because the latter word is Latin, and both of its E’s are pronounced.

Another thing to note: In other Germanic and Romance languages, the final E is always pronounced. For example, in Italian, the words “molto bene” and “calzone” are pronounced “mole-toe bay-nay” and “kal-zo-nay.” (At least they are by modern Italians. Italian-Americans, who came here before the language was codified after WW II get it “wrong.” At least according to modern Italians.) And, in German, a good example is the word “heute,” which means “today.” It’s pronounced “oy-tuh,” with a great diphthong to start and a pronounced E that doesn’t affect the vowels to end it.

Oh, by the way, the Spanish word for “today” is “hoy,” which is pronounced almost the same as the German word without that little extra syllable at the end.

And, honestly, “syllables at the end” is kind of the trick to it because, once upon a time, before the Great Vowel Shift and back in Chaucer’s day, the E on the end of English words was pronounced as its own syllable. In Shakespeare’s day, the E in the last syllable was also pronounced, especially in participles, so that pronounced would have been pronounced pronounce-ed. This is why modern Shakespearean texts will be marked in one of two ways, depending on the meter… you may see the word as markéd writ, or otherwise unstressed, it is just mark’d.

And while grammarians have tried to come up with logical reasons for silent E’s on the end of words, it’s really a stretch because, again, it’s all based on the vagaries of how English is pronounced in the first place. And there’s a particularly heinous example with a word like “lead.”

If it’s a verb, it’s pronounced the same as “lede,” which is a journalistic concept referring to the most important part of the story which usually starts it off — hence, it leads the piece. However, the reason it’s spelled that way is to distinguish it from the noun, lead, which is pronounced the same as “led,” which is the past tense of the verb to lead.

Confused yet? The reason that journalism needed the easy distinction is because lead or leading (short E) refers to the space between lines of type. When type was set by hand, lines were literally separated by one or more thin strips of lead one point or 1/72nd of an inch thick. The term did carry over into the computer world for a long time, though, only eventually giving away to “line spacing” in modern digital publishing. But lede, lead, led, and lead’s friend read all bring up a good point: Vowels in English make no damn sense.

They used to, and that brings us back to Chaucer and English before the great vowel shift — and before Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster independently sat down to decide how words “should” be spelled. (Hint: Johnson was a pedantic putz, and a big part of the reason that English spelling makes no sense. Webster tried to simplify a bit, but not enough.) See, if you read the prologue to the Canterbury Tales out loud and pronounce every word exactly how it’s spelled, remembering that every vowel is pronounced, even the last E’s in words like “bathed” and “veyne”, and that every vowel has only one pronunciation, you can recite it and sound exactly like a speaker of Chaucer’s English without even knowing the language.

Good luck for any non-English speaker trying to read a modern English work and getting it right. It would come out about as clear as me trying to read Gaelic. I’d imagine that this is probably a good approximation of what this mutt language called English looks like to a non-speaker. Here are the first lines of Chaucer in Gaelic: “Nuair a chuir cithfholcadáin i mí Aibreáin an triomach i leataobh, is féidir go dtéann sé go dtí an fhréamh …”

Yeah. I have no idea, either. I do know that Ben Franklin tried to reform English by creating a slightly new alphabet — or alfabet — in which each letter had only one pronunciation, but it never caught on. Too bad, because most of the rest of English is actually a lot easier. After all, possible it is to greatly do much manglement to the words and syntax yet thus ensues a sentence over all intelligible still in English speech, it is. There aren’t a lot of languages you can do that to.

So I’m glad I learned this difficult chimera first. It makes it easier to deal with a lot of the others.

Photo credit: Carole Raddato, The Chimera of Arezzo, c. 400 BC, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Florence